Six things to know for the Santa Anita Derby

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April 8th, 2017

With a total of 170 Kentucky Derby (G1) points for the taking, and no unimpeachable standouts on paper, Saturday’s $1 million Santa Anita Derby (G1) has attracted a crowded field of 13 trying their luck. The 1 1/8-mile affair is an assortment of would-be rebounders, up-and-comers, and one form choice who’s yet to prove himself over a route of ground. In other words, it’s a fantastic betting race that may turn some ducklings into Derby-bound swans.

Here are my six things to know for the Santa Anita Derby:

1. Iliad brings the highest standard of form, but the 7-2 favorite on the morning line will have his routing capacity tested. The son of Ghostzapper has looked brilliant in sprints, breaking his maiden in 1:08.34 for six furlongs at Los Alamitos and bounding clear in the seven-furlong San Vicente (G2) in 1:21.62. Stretching out for the 1 1/16-mile San Felipe (G2), Iliad was dusted by Mastery, who would be at or near the top of everyone’s Derby list if he hadn’t pulled up with a leg fracture.

Perhaps it really is as simple as the next-best to Mastery now becoming the heir apparent. But Iliad held second in the San Felipe by a diminishing 1 3/4 lengths from his totally exposed stablemate Term of Art. Now the Doug O’Neill trainee has to negotiate another sixteenth of a mile, with a deeper cast coming after him. Right now, Iliad has the profile more reminiscent of a King’s Bishop (G1) than a Kentucky Derby winner, but he can change that if he comes out on top of the Santa Anita Derby free-for-all.

Iliad spearheads a four-strong assault from the O’Neill barn, the number itself testifying to the openness of the race. Term of Art, as a one-paced grinder, stands to gain from the added ground. California Derby winner So Conflated, who flopped in the Gotham (G3), is eligible to put his best foot forward back on a track we know he likes. He turned in a strong late rally when promoted to first in his Santa Anita maiden score. Milton Freewater, an honest California-bred, has hit a plateau and might find these heights beyond him.

2. Gormley, the lone Grade 1 winner in the field, is a hit-or-miss type experimenting with a new style. The well-bred Malibu Moon colt is pretty smart when things fall into place for him, i.e., wiring last fall’s FrontRunner (G1) and outdueling the inexperienced American Anthem in the January 7 Sham (G3). To be fair, he was spotting American Anthem five pounds, but the weight concession may have been less telling than his seasoning edge. The rub is that when things don’t go his way, Gormley can’t adapt, as in his seventh in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) and his wilting fourth behind Mastery and Iliad in the San Felipe.

At first blush, the Santa Anita Derby stacks up as more of a challenge for a horse like Gormley. But trainer John Shirreffs has been teaching him to switch off early in his works, and it’s possible that the son of classy turf mare Race to Urga will prosper from a change in tactics. His two disappointing races do come with a semblance of an excuse, having gotten away awkwardly in the Breeders’ Cup, and trying to go with Mastery early in the San Felipe clearly backfired on him. Gormley likely won’t find himself in a mismatched situation here, and he’s shown enough ability to suggest there’s more up his sleeve if Shirreffs can just tease it out.

3. American Anthem and Royal Mo are both trying to put their Rebel (G2) debacles behind them.

Going into the March 18 Rebel, American Anthem offered the siren song of Bob Baffert’s latest budding celebrity to invade Oaklawn. After all, the Bodemeister colt was a good-looking debut winner from off the pace who nearly wired the Sham from the rail next time. Surely a prospect with that kind of tactical flexibility in just two starts could continue his upswing. But American Anthem never looked comfortable in Hot Springs and folded to a dismal 10th as the 8-5 favorite. Although he wasn’t terribly quick out of the gate, got hung out wide, and lost a shoe, those asterisks can’t account for a 13-length drubbing. But back home at Santa Anita, American Anthem may be an entirely different proposition. If you forgive the May 15 foal his one poor race, an “away” game, he’s definitely in the hunt here with new rider Martin Garcia. And then the storyline becomes, “Mastery’s stablemate steps up for Baffert.”

Royal Mo, a 17-hand son of Uncle Mo with late developer stamped all over him, is a different case. The Kentucky Derby isn’t the be all and end all for Shirreffs, or owners Jerry and Ann Moss, who also have Gormley in the line-up. Yet for that very reason, it’s interesting that Royal Mo is being given another chance on the trail, despite a fading ninth in the Rebel. According to Daily Racing Form’s Jay Privman, Shirreffs believes that Royal Mo may have displaced his palate at Oaklawn, so the colt will add a tongue tie on Saturday. Both of his wins have come by controlling the pace, including the Robert B. Lewis (G3), but he might not have that luxury after being marooned in post 13. Since Victor Espinoza is sticking with Gormley, Royal Mo picks up Hall of Famer Gary Stevens, winner of a record nine runnings of the Santa Anita Derby.

4. Battle of Midway and Reach the World, the respective one-two in a recent allowance, could offer some small consolation to Unique Bella’s connections. The best way to recover from having your Kentucky Oaks (G1) slam-dunk sidelined is to come up with a last-minute Derby horse, and both late-blooming colts offer that angle.

Battle of Midway is a stablemate of Unique Bella’s from the barn of Jerry Hollendorfer. A convincing debut winner at six furlongs, the son of Smart Strike and Rigoletta didn’t live up to expectations when a listless third behind Iliad in the San Vicente. But Battle of Midway has shaped as a natural router, and that was in evidence in his 1 1/16-mile allowance victory. He traveled well enough to get the jump on Reach the World and staved him off by a neck. Further progress is forecast for the Fox Hill Farms colorbearer, whose relentless gallop should be well suited to nine furlongs. He also gets a rider switch to Corey Nakatani, currently clicking at 80 percent with Hollendorfer horses.

Reach the World is a homebred for Unique Bella’s ownership, Don Alberto Corp. Befitting a son of Tapit and a Galileo half-sister to champion Escena, Reach the World has raced exclusively around two turns so far in his three-race career. Yet another from the Baffert brigade, the gray can either go forward or settle just off the pace, giving Hall of Famer Mike Smith options. The visual evidence from his narrow allowance loss, where he was getting to Battle of Midway late, implies that he can turn the tables on here. On the other hand, Battle of Midway was stretching out for the first time that day, and could be wiser in this second route.

5. Irish Freedom, a debut winner at Del Mar last summer, is trying to make up for lost time after a truncated juvenile campaign. The third of Baffert’s Santa Anita Derby trio, Irish Freedom beat Royal Mo with a sweeping late charge in August and went into many notebooks as one to follow. Unfortunately, the Donegal Racing runner disappeared from view for the rest of the season.

He didn’t resurface until that Battle of Midway-Reach the World allowance, where he made a good early move, only to tire to fifth. That looked very much like a fitness blow-up, considering how well he was moving until the gas ran out. Now Irish Freedom has been training so sharply as to convince Baffert to add him to the mix. The Pioneerof the Nile colt reunites with Rafael Bejarano, who timed his maiden win to perfection, and he can take a leap forward second time out.

Midnight Pleasure also won over six furlongs at Del Mar in July, but the Ruis Racing hopeful didn’t progress in his subsequent outings. After a well-beaten third in the Del Mar Futurity (G1) and fourth to Gormley in the Front Runner (G1), he returned with a useful third in a sprint allowance. While his class and preferred trip remain to be determined, Midnight Pleasure is bred on the same Midnight Lute/Vindication cross responsible for Grade 1 hero Shakin It Up.

6. Kimbear and Comma Sister are both taking a steep class hike off maiden wins. Kimbear has some useful form, as the runner-up in Iliad’s Los Alamitos maiden and conqueror of Rebel runner-up Sonneteer in his own maiden romp. The Eric Kruljac trainee has prior experience in routing over the turf, and distance shouldn’t be a concern for the son of Temple City and descendant of champion Beautiful Pleasure. Comma Sister didn’t show much in two dirt maidens for George Papaprodromou last fall, but he promptly broke his maiden on turf in his sophomore bow. That came over nine furlongs, making Comma Sister the only Santa Anita Derby runner proven at the trip, albeit on a different surface.

To help with the handicapping puzzle, see the free Brisnet PPs for the Santa Anita Derby.

Iliad photo courtesy of Benoit